III Letter to Christopher Neiswonger


What an extraordinary letter you wrote! I don’t know how you can call yourself an ‘uneducated Christian’ with a straight face. Just for the sake of clarity and the record, the only place I have ever graduated from was a public high school, and that was a couple of decades ago. While I am not illiterate, unlettered or entirely uneducated, I do not live in an ivory tower. I suspect that while you might not live in one, your off-campus housing is probably not that far from one.

Even though you claim that you are not inferring that I am presenting a doctrine exactly the same as the Pharisees,( ‘Just to be on point Winston, the doctrine you are presenting is exactly, not inferentially, the doctrine of the Pharisees.) you certainly do a lot of inferring.  

We need to remember here that it wasn’t I who brought poor beleaguered Melanchthon into the discussion. You used him as I would think an exemplar of what you do not like. Of a thing you do not love and why you do not love it.      

You see, Christopher, when you actually come out and say ‘as I would think an exemplar of what you do not likeyou are absolutely making an inference. As I thought I had made clear, I wasn’t bringing ‘poor beleaguered Melanchthon into the discussion’, I was giving some context to an obscure tale called ‘Melanethon’. I cannot think that I could have introduced him more innocuously to the dialogue: 

Philipp Melanchthon was one of the founding theologians of the Lutheran faith. Emmanuel Swedenborg disagreed with Melanchthon’s insistence of Sola Fide, the argument that salvation can be achieved through faith alone regardless of deeds.”

When I told you the story I was giving you the benefit of the doubt and did not actually think you had a fervent opinion about this particular theologian, let alone know who he is. I said this already, but perhaps you need to hear it again without the jokes. I told you that story because it seemed like a very appropriate story to tell you, not because I hate Phillip Melanchthon.  You then make an argument about how all of the documents you have presented are ‘official’. As you say, ‘Your premise was that justification by faith alone was not only untrue but the cause of this or that flaw in the moral sentiments of a people. I was careful to quote official documents, creeds and confessions, not because being official makes them right or wrong but simply because it makes them official, and being official removes the haggard doubt that someone might be representing something other than what the belief in question is actually. So it doesn’t really help for you to object against the official-ness of the documentation. Who complains because a document is official? Is being official something that makes a writing inherently suspect? It implies that you would rather have a grab bag of half-baked opinions than some clear thought well argued positions that can actually be considered with a certain level of sincere gravity. Thousands of scholars trained in theology, philosophy and original languages are just better at putting together thoughts that will be carefully measured

Aside from the fact this argument is the most literal example of the logical fallacy of the ‘appeal to authority’ that I have ever personally encountered (and why it merits full quotation to truly appreciate it’s rare beauty), I feel the need to point out to you that by complaining about my questioning of authority you really undercut your accusation of my pharisaical nature. My contention remains that blind certainty of one’s own goodness or rightness is not spiritually healthy and will lead to grievous moral and ethical lapses. To give the Lutherans a break, I will use the Vatican for the simplest possible example to illustrate my point. The current occupant of the Papacy spent many of the years of his career before attaining his high office silencing the child victims of rape by clergy and protecting those rapist priests from prosecution. He has recently reaffirmed the self-justified notion that he speaks infallibly and that his faith his perfect, in the sense that all others are flawed. There are a billion souls that identify themselves as Catholic alive on the Earth right now. That means there’s a lot of people and a lot of very learned theological authorities (admittedly, almost all of them Catholics) who would agree with him. Does this make him (and them) right?  

I am not attacking Lutherans. I haven’t shared my story of witness with you yet, but one of the key moments in that story involves the Lutheran Church, and one of my very best friends is a Lutheran seminarian, and he hasn’t taken any of the hysterical offense that you seem to be displaying. A Divine Mandate is to say that something is God’s Will, and it is not up to men to decide that God endorses their actions. Suicide bombers and pilots believe that they have a Divine Mandate for their actions. Pro-Lifers that shoot doctors believe they have a Divine Mandate. Maniacs who shoot up churches believe they have a Divine Mandate. I could go on, but I must take the time to state that I seriously disagree with your statement that ‘‘Everyone should try to justify their actions with a Divine mandate.’.’ Instead, I would argue that the world would be a better place if nobody tried to justify their actions with a divine mandate, but rather seek to make their actions one which would win the approval of the Divine Mandate:

 Mark 12: 28One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”  29“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.[e] 30Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’[f] 31The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[g]There is no commandment greater than these.”  32“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. 33To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  34When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.

I believe my argument against the specific point I am trying to emphasize to you was solid, but I will restate it. You expressed disappointment that I quoted so little from what you so copiously quoted and somehow equated my argument with avoidance and ‘ad hominem’ attack. I don’t really know what the ad hominem part was, but as you avoided mentioning Luther’s writing regarding the Jews, I’ll assume that’s what you were talking about. Again, I will explain. Here is the final paragraph of what you originally quoted to me:

‘Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God’s grace makes you joyful and bold in your relationship to God and all creatures. The Holy Spirit makes this happen through faith. Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire! Therefore, watch out for your own false ideas and guard against good-for-nothing gossips, who think they’re smart enough to define faith and works, but really are the greatest of fools. Ask God to work faith in you, or you will remain forever without faith, no matter what you wish, say or can do.”  

   What you are saying to me is that this statement should be accepted as truth. Well, we have the benefit of historical hindsight and can actually view a person’s words and ideas within the context of their lives. It would be an ‘ad hominem’ attack in our argument for me to accuse you of being, say, a Pharisee, and rejecting everything you say based on that. To judge a dead man’s words within the context of their life’s writings and deeds is another thing entirely. Luther spent a good deal of his life failing to convert the Jewish people to his religion. Three years before his death he wrote ‘On the Jews and Their Lies’ and ‘On Christ and His Holy Lineage’ which were both powerfully anti-Semitic screeds full of angry, ugly lies that ultimately called for the murder of all Jewish people that went through five printings before he died.    

 Luke 9:51- 51As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55But Jesus turned and rebuked them, 56and they went to another village. 

This is a different quote from a different Gospel, but it alone should have been enough to tell so learned and wise a scholar as Martin Luther that you don’t kill people for rejecting your message of perfect divine love. Furthermore, this should also serve to illustrate that Luther did not live out his own theology in a very fundamental way and that his self-justifications were only that and that he had no Divine Mandate. Does this mean all his works are bad or all his teachings are mistaken? No. But it does invalidate the idea that faith alone makes you good. 

You are correct, the axiom that ‘it is absurd to think that simply believing one is good makes one good’ is mine. I take full responsibility for it, and therefore I should explain myself. I will begin by stating that I’ve never met someone who actually believed they themselves were evil, but many people who have fervently believed that they were good even when there was scant evidence for the good they had done to anyone in their lives. In my own life every time I have most grievously erred I was absolutely certain of my own rightness, correctness, and goodness in my actions at the time. Every time I have watched a friend or family member make a terrible mistake they too were unshakable in the certainty of their own righteousness. When one reads the letters and diaries of unrepentant murderers and tyrants, they are testaments to those individuals’ certainty of the righteousness of their actions.  

Jesus did not encourage people to accept the learned teachers of the law unquestioningly. Jesus wanted us to think for ourselves so that we may understand and live the Word. In this, Jesus was concerned with how we showed mercy to each other, to those who transgress against our own selves, not just to those who transgress the Law. Luke 12: 54-59 supports these assertions:    

54He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?  57“Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? 58As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

Finally, since I had neglected to provide you with the doctrine you accuse me of propagating, you thoughtfully provided one for me in the form of this false juxtaposition of ideas: 

Love, Law, Works. Obedience. Salvation is a debt God owes us. (Pharisees)

Faith, Grace, Mercy. Forgiveness. Salvation is a gift God gives us. (Christians)

I suppose since I’m denying both of the options you’ve presented me with, I’ll give you the one I actually chose:

Matthew 5:17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. 

‘We are forgiven, but we must work for our reward.’ (What I hear Jesus saying)

 -Winston Delgado

2 Responses to “III Letter to Christopher Neiswonger”

  1. “one of my very best friends is a Lutheran seminarian, and he hasn’t taken any of the hysterical offense that you seem to be displaying.”

    No, I just take offense at being called a Lutheran! 🙂 I’m United Methodist, and I grew up Presbyterian. Although I am pretty happy with the Lutherans at the moment as they are starting to figure out the whole day ordination thing!

    Then of course you may not be talking about me…

  2. Kenny-
    Well, I knew you weren’t Catholic, and that’s got to be something. Why have I thought all this time that you’re a Lutheran? I guess I just figured ‘Liberal Christian’ and made some kind of mental presumption. See, I really don’t give a second thought about denomination-if you’re not a snake-handler, you’re a heathen!

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